Original URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2003/03/26/MN197410.DTL

English-only students do better on state test
Number of proficient speakers tripled after Prop. 227 passed
Nanette Asimov
San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, March 26, 2003

San Francisco -- Five years after voters approved English-only classrooms across California, the popular ballot measure seems to be working.

The number of students who speak English well despite having learned a different language at home tripled last year.

Thirty-two percent of California students learning English -- more than 862, 000 -- were able to speak it "proficiently" as measured by the California English Language Development test in the fall of 2002.

The rate was just 11 percent in fall 2001. About 1.8 million students took the test for the first time that year.

State schools chief Jack O'Connell announced the test results Tuesday, offering the first measurable evidence of whether students were making progress in English.

"These results are very exciting for our state," O'Connell said, noting that California had more students learning English than any other state -- about one in four. "Public education is on the right track."

The exam measures students' ability to speak, read and write in English, ranking pupils from beginning to advanced. Those who score "early advanced" or "advanced" are considered "proficient," O'Connell said.

Proposition 227, the English-only ballot measure approved by 61 percent of voters in 1998, transformed the way students learn the language in California schools.

Previously, schools struggled to offer courses in students' home languages, sometimes being sued when they were unable or unwilling to do so. Across the state, Spanish is the primary language for 84 percent of students learning English. Vietnamese is a distant second, with 2.4 percent. In all, California students speak at least 56 languages, including such exotics as Tigrinya, Cebuano and Marshallese.

Now, however, the focus is on English. By law, courses given in a student's home language are allowed only if 20 speakers together apply for a waiver.

Many have, and on Tuesday the second-year results of the test were in: Among those enrolled in bilingual education who took the test both years, proficiency rose 13 percentage points -- from 3 to 16 percent between 2001 and 2002.

By contrast, the proficiency of those enrolled in an English-only program rose 21 percentage points -- from 9 to 30 percent during the same year.

A similar pattern also held in school districts. For example, the rate of English-only students scoring at a proficient level rose by 21 percentage points in Oakland, 22 in San Francisco and 32 in West Contra Costa from 2001 to 2002.

But proficient scorers rose at a slower rate if they were enrolled in bilingual programs: 10 percentage points in Oakland, 15 in San Francisco and 25 percent in West Costa Costa.

"It is sort of astonishing that if they teach you English, you learn it faster than if they don't," said Proposition 227's author, Ron Unz, with a bit of I-told-you-so in his voice.

Unz has taken his English-only campaign on the road and recently has seen similar ballot measures succeed in Arizona and Massachusetts. Colorado defeated it.

Despite the results, school districts' language experts said they were not preparing to trash their bilingual programs. 

"I would hesitate to draw any big conclusions," said Susan Dunlap, West Contra Costa's coordinator of services for English learners. "We want to make sure that in the process of learning English, students don't fall too far behind academically."

At the same time, Dunlap said, "we're very excited about these results, and we'll analyze the data" to see what works and what doesn't.

In San Francisco, where district officials in the late 1990s made plain their opposition to English-only programs, more students are enrolled in them than in the bilingual programs: 2,786 vs. 1,745 pupils.

Veronica Chavez, a language programs administrator in the San Francisco district, said the choice was entirely up to parents. She said the district offered three kinds of bilingual programs in addition to classes taught primarily in English.

"It makes sense that children learn English faster when they are taught in English," Chavez said. At the same time, "many parents want their children to continue to speak Chinese, for example. Their parents want them to be bilingual."

Across the state, school districts generally remove students from English- learning programs only after they have performed well on academic tests in English -- tests other than the fluency test. Those who graduate from such programs, however, no longer bring the district extra state money, ranging from $68 to $100 per pupil.